Attacks raise worry about crime in a changing downtown

As area grows more commercial and residential, some worry shootings will scare away shoppers, diners, residents

December 04, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

It was a violent reminder that those who work in or frequent downtown Baltimore didn't necessarily need: two shootings and a reported stabbing within several blocks and in the space of three days.

"It's another excuse for people not to come downtown," said Ben McCain, a manager at Burke's restaurant.

McCain was among those who worry that the recent spate of attacks downtown will keep shoppers and diners from coming into the city's center — particularly at a time when merchants are hoping to capitalize on the holiday spirit boosting their businesses.

Early on the morning of Nov. 27, a police officer was shot near Calvert and Baltimore streets, triggering a gunbattle as other officers fired back at the suspect, who fled on foot and in a car that ultimately crashed into a light pole and fire hydrant.

Later that Saturday morning, a man reported being stabbed on Light Street near Lombard, though police say surveillance camera footage from the area didn't show such an incident taking place there.

Then, early Tuesday, a man and a woman were shot on Commerce Street after leaving The Block, the strip club district on East Baltimore Street.

Police and city officials characterized the shootings as isolated incidents, and say crime in general has decreased downtown. But coming as they did after other prominent attacks this year — including the shooting deaths of a security guard on Light Street in February and a Marine about to deploy to Afghanistan at a hookah bar on Baltimore Street in July — the attacks unnerved residents and workers.

"It's getting worse down here," said Raychelle White, a security guard at a building on Calvert Street, where she was on duty the night the police officer was shot. "I heard all the gunshots — I heard 14, but my husband said they were saying on the news it was 20 shots."

The police shooting on Calvert Street has heightened concerns in particular because of the number of shots fired in an area near clubs, hotels, a hospital and apartment buildings.

As downtown becomes more of a 24-hour locale — with new apartments and hotels bringing a residential component to blocks that once emptied at 5 p.m. — concern about nighttime safety has increased.

"There are residential projects nearby — the Munsey, Saratoga Court," said Downtown Partnership President J. Kirby Fowler Jr., referring to two former commercial buildings that have been converted to apartments. "It's disquieting to hear gunshots when you're trying to sleep. You don't want a gunbattle downtown."

Fowler said he had been reassured by police officials that the shooting "wasn't some erratic, out-of-control gunbattle" and that no stray bullets or casings were found inside nearby buildings.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the shots were fired by trained tactical officers. Far from spraying bullets up the street, he said, they targeted and hit the car carrying the suspect.

White said the shooting seemed to represent a kind of escalation for the area.

"Usually there's just fighting, when the clubs all let out," the security guard said.

White and others spoke of closing time at the Velvet Rope and Lux, when sometimes-unruly customers spill out into the streets, creating traffic and noise problems — and the potential for more serious crimes.

"The police have to close Calvert Street from Lombard to Baltimore because of the sheer volumes of people at closing time," said City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes downtown.

The stretch of Calvert Street where the police shootout took place is in a part of downtown that previously turned desolate after business hours. While still not as lively as Charles Street to the west or the Inner Harbor to the south, the two nightclubs and several hotels that have opened there in recent years have brought more people at night.

Fowler and other downtown advocates say the new uses for previously vacant buildings are a positive thing for downtown, but acknowledge challenges. The question, Cole says, is how to have a lively downtown and yet not create crime and traffic problems.

"Some of that is the evolution of the spaces. The restaurants have moved either farther south or farther north," Cole said. "At the same time, we have a growing downtown population, a lot of them are young people who are looking for nightlife."

The Velvet Rope in particular has come under police scrutiny: In February, an oversold show left hundreds of angry ticketholders locked out, nearly causing a riot and prompting police to seek a revocation of the club's liquor license.

A week later, two men who had been thrown out of the club for fighting ended up shot several blocks away. Ultimately, the club agreed to pay a fine and enter into a security agreement with police, and the city liquor board renewed its license.

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